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InfoQ Homepage Podcasts The Value of Playfulness and Mindfulness in Work

The Value of Playfulness and Mindfulness in Work

In this podcast Shane Hastie, Lead Editor for Culture & Methods, spoke to Amaranatho Robey about playfulness, mindfulness and his journey from AI developer to monk to executive coach.

Key Takeaways

  • The importance of being aware of yourself as a complex system
  • Play is the great place to learn because your system is usually relaxed and you are open and receptive and curious
  • Mindfulness is much more than just keeping calm – it is a habit of deep reflection that can lead to a state of flow
  • The value of supervision as a collaborative, learning journey
  • Ethics are about slowing down and giving careful consideration before taking action



Shane Hastie: Good day folks. This is Shane Hastie for the InfoQ Engineering Culture podcast. Today I have an interesting guest, somebody who I think we're going to have a fascinating conversation with, Amaranatho Robey. Amaranatho, welcome.

Amaranatho Robey: Thank you.

Introductions [00:24]

Shane Hastie: Thank you for taking the time to talk to us today. I'd like to start with your brand, The PlayfulMonk. Do tell me, The PlayfulMonk?

Amaranatho Robey: So how did that happen? So what happened was, well, I've done everything backwards in my life, so actually I started off in the IT industry, I was a tech support manager, got a degree in a AI, traveled around the world, ended up doing meditation, became a monk. And during my time as a monk, I was doing a lot of retreats and workshops, and somebody said, "You need a brand." You know, after leaving the monastery and becoming a freelance monk, they said, "You need a brand." And this very delightful marketing person helped me. And that's how PlayfulMonk came about. But actually it's what I offer, and that in a way, it's the play. Play is so important, you know.

I mean, we see this in the agile world in using serious games, using play to explore, it's a fantastic way of learning. And then monk is actually for me right now, I'm no longer a monk, but it is about the agile mindset, it is about the growth mindset. And bringing those two things together, it's what I am. I tried using a different brand when I stopped being a monk and it didn't really work for me because at heart I still have that monk like nature in me. I was a monk for 15 years, it's a long part of your life, so my name as well. So it's to bring that all together, the PlayfulMonk approach.

Shane Hastie: Perhaps we can delve a little bit into both of those. So with that technical background, then moving in, and now moving back out, so to speak, and supporting others. What did, and this is maybe a hugely wide question and feel free to narrow it for me, what did being a monk give you in terms of being able to give to others?

Becoming a monk and giving back to others [02:10]

Amaranatho Robey: I think that there's a few things that it gave me and what I bring forward. One was just that ability to pause there and notice the sense of calm. And in terms of what I'm offering now, in terms of like agile coaching supervision, yeah, it's the reflection, it's the ability to reflect on your experience. The meditation practice that I learned is actually very agile, it's just incremental and iterative. It's a simple practice when you start off of observing the breath and noticing the body, but through that you learn to observe complexity. I didn't really know all the technical terms, you know because as a monk I didn't really need that, you know, I was just exploring who I was.

Awareness of self as a complex system [02:50]

Amaranatho Robey: But when we observe a complex system, how do we do that? As a monk, I observed myself, that's a very big complex system, explore my thoughts, my feelings, the past, all that stuff. So I was actually able to stay with complexity in myself. And then I started running events as a monk, and then I started having to deal with complexity outside of myself. I ran these family camps, a hundred people, you know it got the dynamics of the human condition, of different age groups, of cultures, and just that ability to stop, pause, and reflect and see what is needed now, what choice do I need to do now, and when to involve yourself and when not to, when to question, when to say something. It was a rich learning, but it was also a learning within the psychological realm as well, not just in the spiritual realm.

And in the end I also needed extra help really, and it was in running these family camps I needed to also explore myself, not just from the mindfulness point of view, but from yeah, like I said, the psychological point of view. So actually that's where I sort of started this journey. The first family camp I ran actually I hurt my back really badly and I ended up in hospital, and during that time I ran the family camp anyway from a palanquin.

But after that time I was in therapy and I took it to therapy, like, "So what's this all about?" You know, I've got all this practice of calm, noticing, reflection, and my back, I had this problem with my back, and we explored it together, and it was this sense of safety and support. How do you feel safe? Not how you think safe, psychological safety. How do you bring that inwards and outwards, you know psychological safety for a group, psychological safety for oneself, and support? So that was sort my journey, start of this very long journey that I've been on.

Shane Hastie: Thank you for that. And that calm presence comes through in the way that you express that. So let's look deeper into the playfulness. What's so important about playfulness in the world today?

The value of playfulness [04:56]

Amaranatho Robey: Well, I always say it's dangerous to be an adult. What I mean by that is not to become a mature adult, but when one chooses a sort of fixed perspective, yeah, that's a very dangerous way to behave because it's exclusive. So play is a way of getting underneath that. If you look at kids, for example, the curiosity of a baby playing, a toddler playing with its foot and he sees it 10 times a day, right, but each time it sees it, it's a new experience. As an adult, we can assume it's the same foot or it's the same brain, it's the same [amerinata 00:06:08], but of course that's not true. Even on a physical level, it's not true, cells are dying.

So this playfulness is the easiest way to learn. All the research says, play is the great place to learn because your system is usually relaxed and you are open and receptive and curious. So it's just how you design the game and how that goes about. And play is relational. We are relational beings and players embodied means it's with the body. Embodiment means that you're physically with it, so not with your mind, but actually with your whole experience. And normally when we are playing a game, you know, it's with the whole body. In cognitive science, it's called embodied cognition. That is the power of play, and it's fun and it's enjoyable, and it can be dangerous and it can be scary, and all these things, but they're reflection points. You play a game, then you see what happens, and from that point you can play the game and see what the result of it is and have a debrief afterwards. The debrief is the power, always you know. So all the family camps that I run and the facilitations that I do has always got an element of playing in it.

Shane Hastie: How do we bring that play into teamwork?

Amaranatho Robey: This is always a tricky thing, isn't it? Because in order to work with a team, it has to be through some sort of consent. And how do you get the consent of the group? It's difficult to impose play on groups. So this is why contracting is so important, particularly in team coaching. You know, how do you contract with a group? You know, if you go into a team situation, if you're an outside coach and you're just doing it for a day or facilitating, or whether you're an agile coach and you're just starting off, what is your contracting around that? How have you negotiated with the group that this is allowable? And maybe it starts off with an experiment. You know, agile is a great way of exploring failure as well. I find it's easier to do it by contract first, that there is an agreement. You know, people may say they don't want to play and that's fine.

When I was running teenager retreats, I said, "Everything is optional." There was a contract about ethical, about the way that they were going to come together, but everything was optional. So some kids would sit out the games, that's fine. All I wanted to know is what did they get out of it at the end? That was the only thing I asked. How was that for you, or what did you learn? That's it. Maybe that's all right. So already you're starting off this reflection. You've already got an idea of where the team is and to keep it light, not to make it serious really, keep it simple.

Shane Hastie: Another term that gets bandied around a lot, and one that you've touched on, is mindfulness. What is this mindfulness thing? Is it wu wu, soft and fuzzy, or is there something important in there? Now I obviously have a bias towards, but what do you think?

Mindfulness is calm and play [08:20]

Amaranatho Robey: It's interesting because actually in a way I didn't really learn mindfulness when I was a monk, right? but you know, it's got a lot of roots there. So mindfulness is the ability to observe your bodily physical and mental processes, and it's been marketed in all sorts of different ways. But for me, mindfulness is a relational activity, and when it's taken out of that context, we can get into sort of some of the messiness in the way mindfulness is promoted nowadays, which is a sort of stress-buster, it just sorts out a situation. And for me, that's just the beginning of mindfulness. It's got so many parallels to the world of agility and the way that it's been sold and promoted into companies, it's so similar. I saw the dynamic straightaway, both in mindfulness and in the agile world.

You know, so a lot of the time mindfulness is just sold as calm, that's it. Calm down. But it's way more powerful than that. It's way more powerful than that. And when it also ought to be treated with respect as well, it is a powerful process, yeah, and whilst you can learn it in a weekend or a few days, or go on retreat, you can learn the basics just like in agile, you can go and do your weekend away and you've got all the stuff, but the embodiment of that and the ongoing development takes time. And it can, as a lot of the research say, it can also affect you, you know, and having a teacher that understands that or somebody that shares with you that is also important. You know, like if you've got serious mental health, it's probably not a good idea to do it. It's probably a good idea to find somebody to help you do it. But in a way, mindfulness is play. Mindfulness is play. It's natural to us, really.

Like, I don't care how you do it. You know, like I work a lot with very busy executive coaches. They say, "I can't an hour a day or half an hour a day." Well, who says you have to? You know and then you can go to the other extreme, which is like, well, it doesn't really matter, you know you do 30 seconds here or whatever. But it's a muscle, so you have to practice it for a while. I happen to have practiced it for a long time, and the executives I work with, once we start getting it into the day, actually they can do it, and they're way more responsive within the ecosystem. It's very important, it's within an ecosystem, not adapting people to organizational stress.

Shane Hastie: Talking about that. What are the benefits? What would I get out of developing a habit of mindfulness?

The benefits of building a habit of mindfulness [10:47]

Amaranatho Robey: Well, it can have a profound effect on your body for a start. It can really help you with having a calm mind. It can help you reflect. It can help you develop the third person view, yeah, which is the ability to observe rather than react to any situation. It can help you stay calm and connected in complex situations. And if you follow it all the way down, if you're really interested in it, you'll find a freedom, an ultimate peace. But you have to go all the way down.

Shane Hastie: It's a long journey.

Amaranatho Robey: It's both long and short, as you would expect from an ex-Buddhist monk to say. It is both immediate and it takes time, so that the recognition of peace is always available because it's in the present moment. You see, like we think about the past, we think, well that's what happened in the past, but that's a memory. And we think about the future, you know, what's that, that's a mystery, isn't it, we never really know. But the present moment is the gift. You know, that's what they say in Kung Fu Panda, you know, and this ability to stay in the present moment, yeah, it's powerful because you're not basing your mind on prejudice or what you want to happen or what could happen or what should happen, but actually what's happening now.

Amaranatho Robey: So we talk about teams and play. So you think this team should do this, or in the past they've done that. Well, you bring that with you and solely base your current view, your current present situation on that, you're going to get in trouble. If you use it to inform and then maybe adapt the actual experiment to that situation and be present, well that's different. So it's the gift of present. And that means you can be with pretty much any situation, anything really.

I've experimented with that personally. I've been a lot of difficult situations and I've seen the power of it. It surprised me, you know I went from being a Buddhist monk, no money, no sex, no drugs, no rock and roll, into running a big business, moving to a different country, having an intimate relationship. You know, it's not all been straightforward, but this ability to use, not just talk about the practice, but actually use it, this sense of being agile for me, you know the agile mindset is about how you be it. We all have to learn and that's fine, and it's this sense of experimentation.

Shane Hastie: Thank you very much for that. Let's change tack a tiny bit. I'm on a coaching journey. You are a coach supervisor. And something that we've discussed is within the agile coaching community we don't see much of that supervision. Why not, and what would the value be?

The value of supervision as a collaborative and learning journey [13:15]

Amaranatho Robey: I think the "why not" is actually fairly simple in a way, it's just not known. It's not a known that that's a possibility. I think, from what I can understand, is the role of agile coach, is still in its infancy in a way, it's still being developed, and it's a complex role, and what does agile and coach together mean? So I think there's that and things are being defined now, and that really helps about what is coaching competencies. So within life and executive coaching, the competencies are really well laid out, and the same with the ICF. You know they're laying it out, what are the competencies? So the important thing to notice about supervision is it is not about somebody standing behind you and telling you what to do.

I like to use super-vision. Super-vision, how do you create vision, super-vision? So supervision in the coaching world and in other fields is defined as a collaborative and reflective learning journey. So it means that we are both on the same level and we have a dialogue about three aspects. There's three aspects to coaching supervision. One is about your development as a coach. The other one is about what you might need to restore yourself to being a coach, if you've got upset, something happened which was really traumatic. The third one is about qualitative, which is about really ethics and your professional standards. So this is not about maybe the technical side of agile, this is about you as a coach, and what happens when you meet another human being. This is really powerful, because it's also where you learn as a coach.

There's different ways of doing it. There's peer group, there's intervision, there's one-to-one coaching supervision, there's group supervision. So I've run a lot of agile group supervision with a lot of agile coaches and scrum masters, with different levels of experience, and one of the things I really notice in the sessions that I've run is around advice-giving and contracting. You know, we were speaking about how do you bring play into a group? Because I think it's so important. How do you negotiate? How do you say that? And if you are unsure yourself about your own boundaries, yeah, bound to appear in the team or in the coaching situation or in the organization, and how do we reflect on ethical considerations?

Ethics are about slowing down and giving careful consideration before taking action [15:35]

Amaranatho Robey: I've read a lot online about agile ethics and it is been really lovely to see like the Agile Coaching Alliance developing this ethical code, which is a way to reflect. It's been taken very literal as well, you know, this is what we should do. But that's actually not how I learned ethics as a monk. I lived a very ethical life as a monk, right. I had lot of rules, but one of the things I learned as a monk was actually how to use rules, but they're not about you shouldn't do this, right. They're about seeing how those rules affect your behavior and how to slow yourself down. So for example, they were very strict rules, not killing, which means you can't hit a mosquito or an ant or anything like that. But what that does is it slows you down, gives you a point of reflection, that's actually developing mindfulness, Right? and then you can think, "Ah, so what about the fly? What about the mosquito?"

So you can do the same thing with the ethics. So what about in this situation? It's not about, I should or shouldn't, but how do you respond in that situation? Just to be able to think about it and go through it. And this is so important. You know I've made tons of mistakes, both as a monk, as a coach, and in my learning to be a supervisor. That's what you do, you put yourself in the little container, you put yourself in the sprint of whatever it is, six months or a year's training, and you see what comes up.

I'm in supervision, myself. I'm on supervision, on supervision, because we're always learning. I'm always learning. There's a new situation or you know just like from disrobing from being a monk to being an executive coach. And I started off supervision actually for myself, actually in the monastery. So I've been in supervision for 20 years. And when I lived in Australia as a monk, I had two, I had one in England and I one in Australia because I needed some of the cultural understanding as well.

Shane Hastie: So what's the difference between supervision in this context and mentoring?

Amaranatho Robey: So that's a really good question. So in terms of the ICF, the ICF use coaching mentoring, which is a way of you getting your accreditation. And what that means is how you develop your competencies as a coach and they're listed out within the ICF. So in order to get the accreditation, you need to be good at these competencies. But that doesn't say anything about your personality though. That just says you've learned these core competencies, which is great, they're important to see what the skills and how to use them in coaching. But then you have to be in front of somebody. Then you have to meet the team or the group or the organization, or you are at home working one-to-one, stuck in front of a computer, don't meet any other coaches. Yeah, something comes up, a client cancels all the time, what do you do? You know, you got to make money. What do you do? Do you keep them going or not?

You know, so the coaching supervision is about you personally. What happens when you get really upset with a client? Do you speak to a friend? Is that actually creating confidentiality? So in the coaching supervision, you can say what you like. You can say, "All my clients are completely crazy. I'm sick of them. They're all idiots." Right? Or you can say, "I had a fantastic coaching session. It was brilliant." All right, also to celebrate, that's all part of it.

And in coaching supervision, also you're looking at the systemic element. How does the system affect you? I hear this a lot from agile coaches, "The manager won't take on agile." Who do they say it to? And if you do it in intervision, yeah it's a system. So who's giving you the perspective, may or may not happen. So there's a big difference between coaching, mentoring, and supervision. And then there's a difference between mentoring. Mentoring is usually about passing on knowledge, you know your knowledgeable. That's not supervision. Supervision is about reflection and being together in that reflection, in that learning journey, and seeing what arises from that. So it's very emergent, it's not goal-directed. You can bring something specific to the session but it's much more emergent.

Shane Hastie: If I am a coach, working in an organization, there probably isn't a structure in place, particularly if I'm in that frame of the agile coach, rather than the professional coach under the ICF, there's probably not a framework around me for supervision and mentoring. How do I go about creating that scaffolding, perhaps?

The challenge of assuring quality in coaching and coaches [19:45]

Amaranatho Robey: Yeah, that's a really good question, and you know what, I don't actually have an answer for that, because that is the WIP, that's the work in progress at the moment, about how do we see value in this? So within organizations that have just internal coaches, not agile coaches, then there's a whole quality assurance thing around how do quality assure coaches, yeah, and how do you keep that out of HR and all the rest of it, so that it's not linked to money, it's linked just to quality.

That's been established within organizations that have a pool of coaches, and in the agile world it's not known. I think there's actually also a monetary thing involved in here. Agile coaches are expensive and they hold a lot for a company. So if this was a pot of money on the desk, you'd want to know how it was being looked after. So if you've got 10 agile coaches in quite a big company, you're probably looking at a million or something, yeah, close to. How would you look after a million? You'd certainly want to make sure that it's all okay, I would think. So that's my exploration around working the with companies, is to explore it in that way. And then there is also the boundary issue and the ethical issues that come up. Where do they go? So if there is problems with management, what do you do? First of all, you have to have perspective from yourself.

I don't have an answer. I don't want to waffle on, I don't have an answer. And it's part of the discussion and part of like, how I'm also exploring it, bringing into companies and seeing, so how would this be for you to look after the wellbeing of your agile coaches? And then the other thing is helping the agile coaches to understand the benefits of this as well for themselves. But it's interesting, if you look at the Agile Business Consortium report about agile coaches, there's a tremendous amount of time that they put in learning. Most agile coaches I know love to learn. So it's not about the outside, it's also about how do you learn about yourself? And that for me is a continuous process. This is interesting that agile is a continuous iterative, incremental process. How might we do that for our own coaching? And how might we bring that into an organization as well?

Shane Hastie: Some deep interesting thoughts there. Amaranatho, if people want to explore this further, where do they find you?

Amaranatho Robey: They can find me on LinkedIn. I'm very active on LinkedIn, I do a lot of post, under Amaranatho, or they can find me through my website.

Shane Hastie: Well, thank you so much for taking the time to talk to us today.

Amaranatho Robey: Ah, thank you, Shane. It's been lovely, yeah appreciate it.


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